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In memoriam Georges Prêtre

Jan 5, 2017 | Internal

Georges Prêtre and the Wiener Symphoniker: The maestro himself described the relationship as a "love affair". Surely this was the reason why he never wished to formally tie himself to an institution. Even when he worked closely with the orchestra in the 1980's, he insisted on serving as Principal Guest Conductor, not as Music Director. Marriages grew out of fixed commitments and were therefore in danger of becoming the very thing that Prêtre abhorred: standard repertoire. And so it would be doubly wrong to say that he conducted a huge repertoire, for he would not allow himself to be called a conductor, much less a Kapellmeister.

As an interpreter, he saw himself in the role of an intermediary who brought each emerging passage to life as it arose within him. And since it always grew out of the moment, it never aged. Paying tribute to Georges Prêtre means placing him in a category that has long since become part of the promotional grab bag. All of the jet-setting, continent-hopping superstars with three and four music directorships are incessantly ranked as exceptional with little, if any justification: but he was the genuine article. His now legendary art of improvisation was like walking a tightrope with the ever-present risk of falling. It was grounded in the minutely detailed study of scores, to which he devoted himself in periods of focused leisure and temporary withdrawal from concertising. His willingness to allow for focused leisure time was surely the secret of his unfailingly resilient memory, regardless of age; it was also the secret of the emotional engagement that enabled him to avoid all forms of purely routine display. This lent an air of authenticity to his interpretations, so much so that every single one of them was capable of becoming a controversial discussion topic.

For us musicians, being confronted with Prêtre's way of making music was an extreme challenge, both in terms of understanding his sometimes crazy gestures and applying his pointillistic, French Impressionist schooling and interpretational approach to the works of Viennese Classicism. We had to somehow get used to the fact that no bar was like any other, that the metric framework and bar lines were the detritus of despised "repertoire", and that every "habit" was off limits. Insofar as he based his interpretations on what Baudelaire first described as the "shock experience", Georges Prêtre was a "modernist". He defined the mark of a "modernist" as sensually expectant receptivity a la Walter Benjamin. Sweeping gestures were not what held his interest: what mattered to him were the absolutely unforeseeable, the surprising, the unusual illumination of colour, and the precedence of detail in its inimitable individuality.

Whenever this extreme sensualist encountered musical texts that underscored or even demanded such a viewpoint, exceptional performances ensued that one would generally characterize as "star-studded moments", but that were actually much more akin to streaking, glowing comets. To have played Debussy's La mer or Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with Prêtre (to say nothing of both on the same program, as happened at the 1983 Bregenzer Festspiele) is something that none of the musicians will ever forget. The same goes for his ability to extract such heights of intensity and obsession from risky Bolero that each player could entirely forget the ostinato monotony of the piece. Where extreme tempo changes were not indicated in the score, on the other hand, he ceaselessly brought into question the significance of the interpreter with respect to the composer's intentions which, to some extent, could be objectively factored in. Anyone who has compared Strauss' own matter-of-fact interpretation of the opening of Rosenkavalier to Prêtre's rendition of the Rosenkavalier Suite must surely have thought he was in another musical universe. This work was near and dear to him, and he performed it on nine programmes with the Wiener Symphoniker alone. Yet even those critics who consider "service to the music" the primary or sole task of the interpreter must concede that, in Georges Prêtre's case, a passionate, individualistic approach does immeasurable service to those so-called warhorses that are in grave danger of being stifled: an approach that abandons all sense of routine may be the answer to the music industry's penchant for ceaseless repetition.

Although it's hard to believe, the collaboration between Georges Prêtre and the Wiener Symphoniker lasted more than half a century. When he entered the Konzerthaus in June 1962 to conduct an entirely unconventional programme with works of Berg and Stravinsky, no one could have imagined that this initial collaboration would evolve into 110 distinct encounters, the longest association in the history of the orchestra. These were rather sporadic at first. But after a series of extremely successful concerts in the late 70s, there were obvious reasons to seek some type of closer association with Prêtre. The 80s formed the quantitative and artistic core of the collaboration. But the Maître always stood by the Wiener Symphoniker. Whether for the televised Springtime in Vienna concert (2004, 2012), European tours (1996 and 1997), on tour throughout Austria (2005), or in major performances on concert series in Vienna, he continued to lead the orchestra every year. Without exaggeration, we can claim that Georges Prêtre left his mark on at least two generations of musicians. On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, he explained that he was four times twenty years old. We took this as the most fitting expression of his exceedingly vital physical and mental state. And we believed that he was surely capable of becoming the first interpreter to enrich the musical life of Vienna with extraordinary concerts at the age of five times twenty. It makes us extremely sad to realize that our optimistic prediction has not come true. We gratefully remember a friend, a truly important interpreter, who shall always occupy a central role and place of honour in the history of the Wiener Symphoniker.

(Text: Ernst Kobau)


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